By SJA Jafri + Bureau Report
MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic on Wednesday admitted “errors” in his travel papers and to meeting a journalist after a claimed coronavirus infection, as he battled to stay in Australia and fight for a record 21st Grand Slam title.
The men’s world number one made the admission in an Instagram post as attention focused on his movements before he flew to Melbourne for the Australian Open.
Djokovic said his team had offered fresh information to the Australian government, which is pondering whether to cancel his visa, again, and throw him out of the country.
“We are living in challenging times in a global pandemic and sometimes these mistakes can occur,” the unvaccinated 34-year-old said in a statement released as he practiced on the courts of the Open, which starts Monday.
The Serbian star flew into Australia a week ago claiming a vaccine exemption because of a positive PCR test result on December 16.
Border agents rejected his exemption saying a recent infection was an insufficient reason, tore up his visa and placed him in a detention centre but the vaccine-sceptic Djokovic’s high-powered legal team dramatically overturned the visa decision in court on Monday on a procedural matter related to his airport interview.
Now, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke says he is considering cancelling the visa another time, as fresh doubts emerge about Djokovic’s travels in the two weeks before he arrived in Australia.
In an update to Australian media, Hawke’s spokesman acknowledged receiving “lengthy further submissions” from the player’s lawyers.
“Naturally, this will affect the timeframe for a decision,” he said.
‘Error of judgment’
Djokovic, a nine-time Australian Open champion, described reports about his post-infection outings in Serbia as “misinformation”.
On the day of his claimed positive test in Serbia, he appeared at a ceremony to honor him with stamps bearing his image. The following day he attended a youth tennis event. He appeared at both apparently without a mask.
Djokovic, who made no mention of the stamp ceremony, said he only received the PCR test result after attending the children’s tennis event but he admitted that he also went ahead with an interview with French sports daily L’Equipe on December 18.
“I felt obliged to go ahead and conduct the L’Equipe interview as I didn´t want to let the journalist down but did ensure I socially distanced and wore a mask except when my photograph was being taken,” he said.
“On reflection, this was an error of judgment and I accept that I should have rescheduled this commitment.”
The journalist who carried out the L’Equipe interview, Franck Ramella, said Djokovic’s representatives had told him not to ask about COVID-19 vaccinations.
The reporter said he had been unaware at the time of the interview that Djokovic was Covid-positive.
Support team ‘made mistake’
The tennis ace also admitted a mistake on his Australian travel declaration, in which a box was ticked indicating that he had not, or would not, travel in the 14 days before flying to Melbourne.
In fact, social media posts and reports show he flew from Serbia to Spain during that period.
“This was submitted by my support team on my behalf,” Djokovic said.
“My agent sincerely apologizes for the administrative mistake in ticking the incorrect box about my previous travel before coming to Australia. This was a human error and certainly not deliberate.”
In another twist, Australian media on Wednesday seized on reporting by Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper that cast doubt over Djokovic’s positive test.
It was not possible to independently verify the Der Spiegel story.
Djokovic’s Instagram post appeared to be aimed at swaying the Australian government to let him stay.
Leading immigration lawyer Christopher Levingston said the government could cancel Djokovic’s visa on narrow criminal grounds, for example, because the travel declaration was incorrectly completed but the immigration minister may also annul the visa on broader character grounds.
If Djokovic knowingly dodged Serbia’s quarantine requirement for positive cases, he could be judged to be a risk for potentially not complying with public health orders while in Australia, Levingston said.
Many Australians, who have endured nearly two years of travel bans, restrictions and rolling lockdowns, were angered when they learned of Djokovic’s vaccine exemption.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government, which faces a general election by May, has been criticized over its handling of the affair.
Djokovic’s visa ban was overturned only after the government conceded it had acted unreasonably by not giving him the promised time to put his case at the airport.
Since then, Djokovic’s COVID-19 test and his actions before touching down in Australia have come under greater media scrutiny.